The founder who gave America a bank to trust
Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury secretary
Alexander Hamilton is remembered today mostly for his death in an 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. But Hamilton's impact was equal to, if not greater than, that of any of the other Founding Fathers. As Ron Chernow notes in his powerful new biography of Hamilton: "If Washington was the father of the country and Madison was the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government."
Hamilton's story is compelling, and Chernow makes the best of it. He was born in the West Indies; his parents never married. When he was 10, his father deserted the family, and his mother died two years later. His protector committed suicide, leaving Hamilton and his brother alone. He found his way to New York City, enrolled in Kings College (now Columbia University), and became involved in the movement for independence.
He joined the Revolutionary Army, and his prowess as an artillery captain in the war's early battles soon caught Washington's eye. The commander in chief responded by making Hamilton his aide-de-camp. He was 22 years old.
After the revolution, he married Elizabeth "Eliza" Schuyler, a member of one of New York's wealthiest families, and he began to shape the nation's future.
He was a driving force behind the Constitutional Convention; he was an author of the Federalist Papers; and he spearheaded the drive for ratification, almost single-handedly securing New York's agreement.
Washington appointed Hamilton the nation's first Treasury secretary, and it is here that the young immigrant's genius flourished. Nearly all the programs he sponsored were approved:
• Establishment of the Bank of the United States.
• Federal assumption of state Revolutionary War debts.
• Creation of a national tax system.
• Creation of the Customs Service and the Coast Guard.
The range and lasting impact of his decisions at Treasury are breathtaking. For example, Hamilton declined to distinguish between the original holders of debts from the Revolutionary War - often poor soldiers - and the speculators who acquired it later. This stand was not popular at the time, but, Chernow explains, it established "the legal and moral basis for securities trading in America: the notion that securities are freely transferable and that buyers assume all rights to profit or loss in transactions."
More important, he put the nation on a sound financial footing. In Chernow's words, "Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States ... enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation" when he departed.
His impact went far beyond the Treasury Department. There were many decisions to be made, and the first administration was drawing upon a blank slate - there were no precedents for anything.
The president didn't have much help. It's hard to imagine today, but Washington's initial cabinet had only three members (secretaries of Treasury, War, and State). Even the attorney general was a part-timer. In this environment, Hamilton's wide-ranging mind and close relationship with Washington let him function almost as a prime minister who gave advice on any and every matter before the government.
Not all his pioneering accomplishments were noble: Hamilton, a compulsive flirt, managed to be at the center of the first sex scandal in American politics. Perhaps surprisingly, Hamilton was happily married, and Chernow's description of the loving and close relationship between Alexander and Eliza is one of the most intriguing points of this book.
Hamilton's personal flaws were considerable. He was a "mass of insecurities" resulting from his tumultuous youth, and he was prone to be tactless, vain, impulsive, and "incapable of turning the other cheek."
He took slights personally, and his quick temper made him susceptible to "affairs of honor" or duels. He was involved in duel preliminaries six times, including, Chernow notes, an incipient challenge to James Monroe, and served as a second on three occasions.
At a small dinner in March 1804, Hamilton called Vice President Burr "despicable." When confronted by Burr, Hamilton refused to retract the remark or apologize. So, on July 11, 1804, Hamilton and the sitting vice president of the United States fought a duel ("over an adjective," notes Chernow) near Weehawken, N.J.
The result was tragic, of course. Hamilton died the next day, and, while Burr managed to escape prosecution for murder, his political life was over.
After his death, Hamilton's legacy was tarnished by his political foes - especially Adams, Jefferson, and Madison - all of whom outlived him by many years. In their writings, Hamilton is portrayed as a closet aristocrat who would have preferred a monarchy closely allied with England.
But in Chernow's hands, Hamilton emerges as a strong and consistent advocate of American independence, constitutional government, and individual freedom.
At more than 800 pages, this book is not a short read, but it is a great one. Chernow's magisterial work combines a biography of Hamilton and a political history of the United States in the early years of the Republic. Exhaustively researched and beautifully written, the volume tells us a great deal about the Founding Fathers and helps restore one of them to his rightful place in the pantheon.
• Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.